My first adult introduction to transgender culture was the Rocky Horror Picture Show featuring Tim Curry as the effervescent Dr. Frank. Simmer down now, it was the early 90’s, pre widespread internet and all. Aside from Bosom Buddies, my only exposure to gender issues was at Kenmore Books and News, the regularly picketed ‘dirty book store’. What I scoped out there as a filthier Rob Zombie grumped at me from the counter made Rocky look pretty mainstream. At least there were no petite ballerina types with enormous penises.
I really didn’t know what I was walking into. I had heard of Rocky, but only that it was something cool I needed to check out. The night we decided to check it out, we got ready by drinking a 12 pack each of Golden Anniversary beer and putting on costumes as Dan and JP, our friends who had been, were kind enough to inform us it was Halloween night. Saved from the faux pas of showing up looking ridiculous, I went with a dirty evil clown look. JP picked a sexy French maid number which filled me with repressed envy. He had just come out as gay, and the outfit was not helping much as I struggled with my own identity uncertainty, filling me with a big knot of crippling anxiety. Instead of exploring these feelings, I got drunk on the cheapest of all beers, smeared grease paint over my face and renamed myself Dark Pistacio. I took a little bit of a circuitous route to get to where I am today.
Walking in to the old Amherst Theater, we were greeted by Larry, a nebbish guy resembling Michael Jeter, the guy who played Mr Noodle’s brother, Mr Noodle on Sesame Street. Larry was wearing a beautiful black lace teddy and fishnets; not how he normally dressed when we made subs together weeknights at the school food court. I noticed a lot of people dressed that way. I thought I had found the secret door to the underground trans scene. The movie experience only reinforced that. Dr Frank was self described “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania”. I was all kinds of confused. I had no clue yet what I was, but was reasonably sure I wasn’t that.
The members of the cast didn’t help matters much. Not the real cast, Susan Sarandon is above reproach in my book, but the ones who act out the movie for some reason, ad-libbing lines, songs, or entire scenes all willy nilly. It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t quite like them either. True, they were also gender attire challenged, and geeks, much like myself, but a different kind of geek. The kind who thought wearing a cape to class had panache or would recite every line of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail in German, even after you begged them not to. I was still inexplicably drawn to the entire experience.
After 12 years of Catholic school, followed by 1 year dorming at UB with an introverted roommate, anything that smacked against the hum drum of conservatism had a certain appeal. Knowing I was different, but not sure how, I was hungry for any experience that shoved me out of the mainstream I never felt I belonged to. At Rocky, people wore what they liked and went by preposterous names like Dr Eye, Jeff Death, and Monkey Jaw. Actually I don’t think Monkey Jaw was aware of her moniker, even though the guy known as Monkey Head was of his. I attempted to “blend” into this crowd by continuing the Dark Pistacio façade and deplorable hyper-masculine caricature. In hindsight it was a hideous fit and ultimately unsustainable. Eventually I came to the right conclusion that this wasn’t me either and lost interest.
It took many more years before I came to the understanding that Rocky Horror was not a good representation of transgender culture, catchy songs notwithstanding. I have to wonder what path I would have wandered down had I not assumed Dr Frank to be a typical depiction, of whom I had an inability to relate. While I liked the whole gothic horror element in an Addams Family way, I couldn’t see myself running around in my skivvies while trying to build a blond dude in gold bikini bottoms in my basement. Still better than Buffalo Bill, but not much.
Ironically, in doing some Wikipedia research while writing this I noticed that the writer of Rocky Horror, Richard O’Brien (who also played Riff Raff in the film) identifies as either transgender or third sex. Part of his motivation for creating this delightful hot mess was his deep feeling that society should not dictate gender. I certainly can’t argue the intention, but for a young closeted trans woman, oh what confusion!